History of the poncho, an Argentinean national seal

The poncho is Argentina's main artisanal product: handmade, with procedures and techniques passed down from generation to generation, with local and natural raw materials. Get to know more.

History of the poncho, an Argentinean national seal
Poncho history, a national Argentinean seal of approval. Photo by Imat Bagja Gumilar / Unsplash

The poncho is an ancestral and contemporary garment that crosses borders and time. It was used by the Nazcas and the Incas as a coat and precious object in their burials, it was worn in 1529 by the indigenous people that Sebastián Gaboto saw when he went up the Paraná River, it was woven by women to protect their loved ones during the wars of independence, it is an image inseparable from the figure of the Argentine gaucho and its morphology reached the catwalks of brands such as Yves Saint Laurent, Dior, and Burberry.

A craftswoman dedicates between one and four months to the making of a garment, entangled in a process that begins much earlier, with the collection of the fiber of the llama, alpaca, sheep, guanaco, or vicuña. In the case of the camelid, a kilo and a half of wool are needed to weave a poncho, and per animal, approximately 100 grams are obtained, being the fibers of the loin, chest, and belly the best quality. In the Northwest region, for example, the shearing of the llama takes place between November and December through "la señalada", a ceremony where the animals are honored with colored ribbons and the mother earth is thanked for obtaining the wool.

The process of converting wool into yarn is an entirely handmade task. The fibers obtained are cleaned, dried in the sun, stretched to form fleece, and left ready to be spun by hand, with the help of a spindle or a spinning wheel, wooden elements similar to a spinning top, which help to facilitate the process. Industrial spindles or puskas have also been incorporated in the spinning of natural fibers.

The landscape is fundamental in the design, since the colors of the yarns are obtained, in many cases, using natural dyes. Red colors are obtained from ceibos, blue from blackberries, green from molle, yellow from mikuma, and gold from rhubarb. Nutshells, yerba mate, onion, carob, jarilla, or beet also provide a varied palette of colors. Some artisans carry out the same patient process of dyeing and sun-drying the skeins, although using industrial dyes.

Alpaca. Image: Jujuy province government

The weaving techniques used are representative of their communities, the villagers feel identified with them and know that in this place are born the ponchos that link them to their territory. The Director of the National Market of Traditional Handicrafts of Argentina, Roxana Amarilla, characterizes some of them according to their designs and weaving techniques.

The Mapuche Poncho: it is made in the Patagonian provinces and other areas of influence of this people. It is made in a single cloth, with a vertical loom, it is generally made of hand-spun sheep's wool. The covers can be worked or with dyeing and weaving technique (ikat), the dyes used can be cocolle, ñire, or Calafate. Some Mapuche craftswomen work with a delicate finish with whole and even bangs.

The Poncho de guarda pampa ("Pampa guard poncho"): made by craftswomen from La Pampa, descendants of displaced ranquel communities, they make ponchos with a tied guard, using the ikat technique, which combines the weaving and dyeing of a single cloth, in sheep's wool.

The Poncho coya: made by male and female artisans of the Puna Network, they are made of llama wool, finely spun in pushka or puska, the Andean spindle. They are light and finish in rapacejo or meshed.

The Poncho atamisqueño: characteristic of Atamisqui, Santiago del Estero, made with very fine-spun wool and dyed with natural dyes from trees of the mountains of Santiago del Estero, such as quebracho and carob, or artificial dyes. It has borders decorated with the ikat technique, but there are also those with pallado or pallay. It is made in Creole loom and is made of two cloths that are joined with fine decorative or hidden stitching.

The Poncho salteño: it is made in the creole loom, it is made of two cloths that are generally joined with a zig-zag seam called quenqo or with a fly wing seam. It is very representative of this province and alludes to the epic of Güemes.

Weaving poncho.
Poncho weaving.

Traditional weavers learned the techniques by watching their elders, helping in finishing or collecting fruits for the task of dyeing with elements from nature. In many communities, the entire family group is involved in the task.

"The intangible heritage is transmitted from generation to generation, but not exclusively so. For example, in Valcheta, Río Negro, it is transmitted among women, from mothers to daughters and granddaughters, because it is a community of great weavers who were able to set up a workshop where they improve and train themselves. In other cases, such as that of the Salvatierra family in Catamarca, the teaching takes place in the home, it is pure transmission from parents to children."

At the national level, female artisans predominate in the art of weaving, but in the Patagonian provinces, weavers are exclusively women because in the Mapuche culture the art of weaving on the witral (vertical loom) is an ancestral grace of women where the genesis of this practice survives.

"The loom is the place where the longings, secrets, joys, and sorrows of the weavers are spun. It is a space of encounter between the earthly and the divine, of dialogue with oneself and with the present and past histories of the people that are narrated while the warp is being woven. In the weft of the ponchos are knotted passages of lives, of heritage, of feeling, of memory, and of thousands of stories that are relived every time we wear them."
Argentinean gaucho wearing a traditional poncho.
Argentinean gaucho wearing a traditional poncho.

Sources: Argentina.gob.ar